Monthly Archives: February 2014

Number of Known Planets Practically Doubles in One Week, and the Response is… Yawns?

We are so ridiculously jaded, people.  Two days ago, NASA announced that the Kepler Mission had found 715 new planets.  Seven hundred fifteen entire planets that we previously didn’t know existed.  It’s been about twenty years since we found the first exoplanet (planet outside our solar system), and in the intervening time 961 confirmed exoplanets were found.  So in a single announcement, the number of known planets in the universe increased almost twofold, and while the major news outlets picked up the story, it was pretty much no big deal.  Ho hum.  Move on, there’s stuff going on with Justin Bieber and the Oscars.

Check out the graph:

From NASA’s Digital Press Kit: “The histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year for roughly the past two decades of the exoplanet search. The blue bar shows previous planet discoveries, the red bar shows previous Kepler planet discoveries, the gold bar displays the 715 new planets verified by multiplicity.” Image Credit: NASA Ames/SETI/J Rowe

This is really huge!  It’s exciting.  It’s a step towards finding out if there are other habitable planets out there.  It’s proof that the Kepler mission is worth every penny and then some.  It’s amazing technology and tremendous discovery.  For a society that’s totally dependent on – and centered around, and often obsessed with – science and technology, we are awfully nonchalant about this grand new advancement in knowledge.

I encourage you to check it out, and watch the video if you have a few minutes.  More importantly, step outside and stare up at the stars with a little bit of wonder tonight.  Think about just how big the discovery of 715 whole planets really is.  We don’t even know that much yet about the one planet we live on.  There is so unbelievably much more out there to discover and learn about.  Our entire solar system, which we just recently managed to even send something outside of, only has eight qualifying planets.  We just found nearly a hundred times that in one fell swoop.  There’s a big, impressive, amazing universe full of mystery out there and it’s only going to get more exciting the more we learn about it.

What do you think about the discovery and our exploration efforts?  What else do you hope we will find out there?  Why do you think this got so little attention and what does it say about us?

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Encouraging a Budding Architecht

My daughter loves to build.  I mean really loves to build.  It started with tower-building, where she would build these precariously stacked towers taller than she was – and I still have no idea how she ever managed to get them to stay up.  Even built four feet high, tilted on the edge of a rug and slanting sideways all the way up, she could get the darned things to stand.  At least until the dog came by and knocked them down, after which there would be a brief period of outraged wailing, followed shortly by a new tower.

Gradually her repertoire expanded from towers to castles, castles to cities.  Mega Bloks gave way to my old set of Duplos, and the colorful small set of Melissa & Doug wood blocks was supplemented by a set of Mad Scientist alphabet blocks and a bigger, plain wood set of Melissa & Doug blocks.  We’re just about ready to move on to regular legos, so watch out world.

Almost anything can be added to a block city - even old berry baskets and hippos!

Almost anything can be added to a block city – even old berry baskets and hippos!

It warms my heart that she loves to build so much.  She has this amazing single-minded intensity when she is building things.  So with her fourth birthday coming up, I’m very excited to see what she makes of the latest additions she’s going to get to unwrap: Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys.  These were some of my childhood favorites that I was very pleased to discover have made a comeback.

Playing with building toys is a great way to encourage valuable skills in kids that are applicable in so many areas.  While my relatives and I joke that my daughter’s current building obsession must mean she will grow up to be an architect or construction worker someday, I’m really just happy that there’s an activity she likes so much that has many long-term benefits.  Building is great for spacial orientation, balance, hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and planning skills.  And blocks can even be dual-hatted and used for teaching counting, ordering by size, shapes, pattern-making, and geometry.

I remember building massive lego cities as a kid, and can’t wait to do that again with my daughter (yes, I may have some ulterior motives here… there could perhaps be eventual purchases of lego sets that are things I always wanted as a kid!).  It never even occurred to me as a kid, playing with my sisters and brother and friends, that legos weren’t anything but a unisex toy.  I’ll save the new “girl” legos for another post, maybe sometime when I have had a good day and a couple glasses of wine and can talk about it calmly and rationally instead of ranting.

I also like that building toys are one of the better types of toys for playing across a span of ages.  Older kids and younger kids, parents and children, crazy uncles and grandparents – everyone can play together with these toys.   Well, when you can get the kids to share, at least.  And they are definitely a more grownup-friendly form of play for me.  I can only do so much pretending to eat plastic-food meals my kid has prepared, but I’m happy to build with her for a good long while.

And a lot of adults still play with these toys – just look at Lego conventions and competitions.  But professionals use them as work tools, too.  I remember being stunned when, as an undergraduate working a summer internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, I discovered a drawerful of legos, k’nex, and Tinkertoys.  I needed something to demonstrate how an attachment mechanism on the space station moves, in order for someone to make a computer animation of it.  I had been attempting to make a moving model out of paper clips, erasers, and rolled up notebook paper.

Instead, my supervisor took me over to a nondescript cabinet, pulled it open, and showed me the toys inside.  He said it was common for engineers to use these things to demonstrate moving parts and play with new ideas.  That was the first time I realized that engineering was so very much more than the academic side I was so immersed in.  Engineering was about creatively making things work.  It’s also a job where no one will bat an eyelash if you play with legos at work.  I was sold – I had definitely picked the right major.

So I encourage you to encourage your kids to play with these types of toys.  They are sturdy, and can last through several generations of kids.  My parents kept our wooden blocks and Duplos and now the grandkids use them.  They are fun, simple, and good for group play across ages and generations.  And you never know when getting down on the floor to build a block tower or create a lego battle scene will give just the right spark to a budding young architect, engineer, astronaut, artist, or construction foreman.

What were your favorite building toys as a kid?  Have any recommendations on the latest and greatest, or fond memories of great building-toy achievements?

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Why the STEM Female Role Model Spotlights?

The STEM Female Role Model Spotlight posts really serve several purposes.  First, they are to show that there are, in fact, lots of really good female role models in STEM fields.  I try to keep a good mix of those you have likely heard of and those you probably haven’t, across a spread of fields to include everything from computers to chemistry to carbon-dating, and time periods ranging from the earliest scientists to current day computer wizards.  This is important because studies have shown that one of the biggest things that keeps girls from entering STEM fields is a lack of visible female role models in the field – if they don’t see women, especially successful ones in leadership roles in that field, they tend to think it’s ‘not for women’ and the cycle keeps on repeating itself.  Nothing ever changes.

Second, they give me something to write about on days when I don’t have any other topic in mind.  I have a growing list of women who I think would be good for these posts.   I can pick one from the list who, on any given day, I would like to do a little digging on, learn more about, and write about.  These posts save me from ever having to deal with a bad case of writer’s block!  Since I try to write every day, this is crucial.

Third, I just find making these posts fun and interesting.  I enjoy the research part, and think of it as creating a sort of database I can refer to if my daughter is ever looking for a good role model in a particular field.

I hope you find these women’s stories interesting as well.  I welcome any additions to that list, so please feel free to nominate someone you know of who hasn’t been featured yet!

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Busting that Stereotype, Cracking that Ceiling, and Proving Those Jerks Wrong.

One of my favorite t-shirts – from http://www.offworlddesigns.com

This is for every girl or woman who had to grow up hearing any of these.  A little motivation for a gray February day.

“Girls aren’t good at math and science.”

We are.  We may not always be encouraged to be, but we are.  I’m encouraging you now.  Surround yourself with others who will encourage you.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something or aren’t good at something if you haven’t tried at least a dozen different approaches to get better in your weaker areas.  Find a tutor, or a book that explains it better, or work with a friend.  You’d be amazed how much a fresh perspective and a little support can do to make you realize that math and science are fun – and not that hard if you’re not constantly told you can’t.

“Oh, don’t you look pretty in that outfit.”

You do – but that’s not all you are.  You have substance, you have worth, you have brains.  You are more than the fashion of the moment, a doll, an object, or your external appearance.

“Why are you playing with a boy’s toy?  Don’t you want a dolly?”

Variety is the spice of life.  Choice is important.  Figure out what you like, and don’t let others dictate what you enjoy.  You don’t have to pick pink sparkly things – but if you do, it should be because you were allowed a choice and decided for yourself what your tastes are.  There’s nothing wrong with pink, sparkles, ruffles, dolls, rainbows, kittens, or bows – but they shouldn’t be crammed down anyone’s throat as the only way to go or the only acceptable things for girls to play or decorate with.

“Oh, you’re such a sweet little princess”

Being a princess isn’t actually very glamorous in real life.  They have schedules, keepers, public appearances, and not a whole lot of freedom.  A real-life princess is scrutinized in the press, never gets any privacy, and has the whole world notice if she gets a gray hair or dares wear the same outfit twice.  Their ‘subjects’ often question why they are even still around – it’s rough to have a bunch of people say you aren’t necessary, or even that you’re a burden.  They’re also usually extremely well-educated, politically savvy, and highly accomplished women in their own rights, not fluff-headed cartoon characters full of sweetness and light.

“That’s such an un-feminine thing to say or do.”

Who gets to define that?  Feminine according to what standard?  None of it makes any sense and there’s no consistency.  Women should cook at home, but men get to be great chefs?  How does it even make sense that one is ‘feminine’ while the other is ‘masculine’?  Women should be in trim shape, but not so fit as to be muscular?  Skirted garments are for women in one culture, but for men in others?  You should dress ‘pretty’ but not ‘sexy’ and have to know where that moving-target fine line is at all times?  These ‘rules’ change from decade to decade and culture to culture.  So don’t bother chasing an ever-changing impossible ‘standard.’  Be yourself and find things to do that you enjoy and are willing to work hard at.

“You’re not skinny/pretty/stylish enough.”

Be healthy.  Be confident.  Take care of yourself.  None of the rest of it matters.

“You’re too bossy/b*tchy/pushy”

If you were a boy or man, you’d be described as ‘confident’ instead.  Or a ‘good leader,’ or ‘persuasive.’  It’s another double standard.  Be yourself, and stand up for yourself.  Stay tactful, but don’t be afraid to push back.  And never, ever be afraid to say ‘no.’  It’s a very powerful word.

“You’re such a feminist.”

Definition of feminism according to Merriam-Webster: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.  How did that ever become an insult?  Why is it ‘ the other f-word?’  What is so awful about wanting equal rights and opportunities?  Feminist doesn’t equal misandrist.  There’s nothing in the definition about hating men, thinking women are better than men, wanting to take anything away from men.  What is so horribly threatening about people wanting to be equal?

“You’ll never find a husband doing (insert whatever they think you’re doing wrong)”

A husband is a life partner.  Partner.  As in equal.  Not someone who will take pity on you or somehow be talked or tricked into attaching himself to you for life.  If you aren’t yourself when finding a spouse or partner, you’re basing the whole relationship on a lie.  It’s not fair to either of you.  Be the best self you can be – and remember that being someone you are not won’t find you a compatible partner, it will find you misery.

“Girls/women can’t do (insert pretty much anything here).”

So there’s a bunch of stuff that an entire half of the world’s population can’t do?  Women can’t fight a war?  It’s been done at least part of the time for most of recorded history.  Win a Nobel Prize?  Many times over.  Finish an Iron Man?  Check.  Climb Everest?  Done.  Discover a new element?  Yes.  Reach the North Pole?  Yep.  Win Iditarod?  Done.  Engineer, CEO, film director, doctor, physicist, astronaut, ship captain, general, inventor, you name it, it’s pretty darned likely a woman has done it.  Probably lots of women, many of them against incredible odds and extra barriers.  So don’t tell me a woman or girl can’t do something.  When you say that, what I hear is actually, “I personally don’t think you should for some reason, but I’ll say ‘girls’ or ‘women’ to generalize so I don’t sound quite as much like a jerk.”  When you tell a girl she can’t, you’re probably doing it for a selfish or ignorant reason, or out of long habit you don’t feel like breaking.  Don’t you dare ever tell a little girl she can’t do something.  It takes a pretty soulless schmuck to squash the dreams of a child.

Yeah, ok, so I’m feeling a little punchy on this topic today.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go back to work on trying to follow my own advice 🙂

Has anyone ever told you that you can’t do something?  How did you respond?  What do you wish someone had told you that you could achieve when you were little?

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Valentina Tereshkova, First Woman in Space

Valentina Tereshkova, First Woman in Space. Photo from http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/Images/StarChild/scientists/tereshkova_l2.jpg

A pet peeve of mine is when someone calls Alan Shepard the first man in space, or Sally Ride the first woman in space.  While they were the first American man and woman in space, respectively, and we are very, very proud of them, those are firsts we didn’t actually have the distinction of winning in the space race.  We had many amazing firsts, but not those two.  And when it came to putting a woman in space, we weren’t first by a long shot.  While Yuri Gagarin’s historic first flight was only a little bit ahead of Alan Shepard’s, Sally Ride didn’t fly in space until a full 20 years after the first Soviet woman did.  So much for our superior equality and women’s rights here, right?

Last summer was the 50th anniversary of Valentina Tereshkova’s spaceflight.  She became the first woman in space on June 13, 1963.  Sally Ride became the first American woman in space on June 18, 1983.  Thats two entire decades plus a few days apart.  We like to think we are the most equal and progressive country in the world, but a lot of times we fall short of that distinction – women in space, women in the top government position, paid maternity leave… these are all areas where we are nowhere near being the world leaders, but with just a little concerted effort we definitely could be.

The Soviets (now Russians) have been far from perfect in the track record of cosmonaut equality, though.  After Valentina Tereshkova’s flight, they didn’t launch another female cosmonaut until Svetslana Savitskaya in 1982.  And they have had only a total of three women in space to our forty-odd.  But at least they gave one woman a chance early on, unlike in the U.S. space program (the women who very nearly made it to space in the U.S. in the early days, the Mercury 13, will be another post).

To date, just slightly over 10% of all astronauts and cosmonauts in the world have been women, but the numbers are creeping up.  The U.S. is doing particularly well in this arena lately – we went from having zero women in the first astronaut candidate class, to 50% of the most recent astronaut candidate class (4 of 8 selected).

But back to today’s role model.  The daughter of a textile worker mother and tractor driver father, Valentina Tereshkova had limited formal education, attending school only from the age of eight until leaving school to join the work force and take correspondence courses at age seventeen.  Her father went missing in the Sino-Russian war, so she and her two siblings were raised by a single mother.  Valentina was working at a textile mill when she was picked up for the cosmonaut program – not for her prowess in academics or her field, but because of her hobby as an amateur parachutist.  She learned to parachute with a local aviation club that was an auxiliary of the Soviet Air Force.

One of four women selected for Nikita Khrushchev’s “Women in Space” program, she was the only one chosen to actually launch.  Unfortunately, the program mainly existed for the purpose of putting a woman in space before the Americans – little did they know that, sadly, the Americans weren’t even trying to put a woman in space at that point, as the early women’s astronaut program in the U.S. was  actually quietly being canceled.

Since the Vostok’s systems were largely automated and it was chiefly a political stunt, the key criteria for female cosmonauts were parachute experience, ‘likeability’, and having nothing embarrassing or offensive in their records.  Since Valentina was already a leader in her communist youth organization and free of any scandals, she beat out candidates with more education and broader, more applicable experience, such as engineering or test pilot backgrounds.

Valentina Tereshkova’s flight on Voshtok 6 was just shy of 71 hours in duration, long enough to orbit the Earth 48 times.  Accounts of what happened on the flight vary – the public, propaganda version is that the flight was a resounding success and Valentina Tereshkova was a true Soviet hero.  Several prominent party officials later wrote in various memoirs and accounts that she had an emotional breakdown or otherwise failed to complete her mission.  Valentina did not get to give her own side of the story until 2007.  Her account said that the automatic systems were set up incorrectly and she had to override them, the orientation system being 90 degrees off.  That would have sent her off into death in space rather than inserting into the proper re-entry orbit.  Instead, she managed to bring herself and her spacecraft safely back with nothing more than a bruised nose from a hard landing.

Whatever actually happened – and I’m much more inclined to go with her own account than those of propagandists and Soviet-era party leaders – she was able to successfully launch, spend three days in space, and return to Earth in one piece, so I call that a tremendous success.

After her return, there were several party members who tried to start rumors and discredit her.  There were grumblings that any woman who flew was taking a place away from a man.  The female cosmonaut program quietly went away.  Valentina married a fellow cosmonaut – was pressured to marry the one bachelor cosmonaut, in fact – and they had a daughter.  The three were frequently paraded around as the “space family” but it fell apart after a few years and she eventually married Yuliy Shaposhnikov, her partner until his death in 1999.

She went on to complete a graduate degree in engineering and became a pilot and instructor, but never flew in space again, despite her best efforts.  She tried to get back into space when the female cosmonaut program was revived to once again rival the Americans, when word got out that women were beginning training as NASA astronauts in the late 1970s.

Valentina’s career after her flight was spent mainly as a prominent communist party politician and as an activist, making public appearances and working for various organizations to support women’s rights, science, spaceflight, and orphanages, and she even served on the World Peace Council.  She is still active in the Russian government, and has expressed an interest in joining the Mars One program and returning to space as a one-way Mars colonist.  Most recently, she was a flag-bearer in the Sochi Olympics.  Her awards are too many to list here.  Please see the sources below for more information.

Today’s STEM female role model is unique in that she didn’t start out as someone in a STEM field at all.  The fact that a young textile worker with little schooling and a passion for parachuting could become the first woman in space, a pilot, a prominent global politician, activist for women’s rights, pilot, wife, mother, grandmother, and engineer is inspiring.  But the most impressive thing, in my mind, is that even at age 76 she is still dreaming of going to space, and still busy following her many passions.

Sources:

http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/whos_who_level2/tereshkova.html

http://www.astronautix.com/astros/terhkova.htm

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/16/50-years-women-space-soviet-tereshkova_n_3442856.html

http://www.space.com/21571-valentina-tereshkova.html

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/sep/17/mars-one-way-ticket

https://community.mars-one.com/

http://news.discovery.com/space/history-of-space/tereshkova-first-woman-in-space-130614.htm

http://www.universetoday.com/102956/cosmonaut-valentina-tereshkova-1st-woman-in-space-50-years-ago-ready-for-mars/

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Now That’s a Nature Walk!

Image

My little geekling and I took our usual routine weekend nature walk ‘on the road’ today with a 10k race along the ocean.  This is the view from the parking garage – the starting line was down at the far end of the boardwalk. I love doing these races with her (we usually do around couple per year ranging in distance from 5k to half marathon), but I think we’re at the point where we’re going to have to figure something else out because she’s gotten way too tall for our old, faithful, beat-up jogging stroller.  Time to start taking her on those 1-mile family fun runs and working our way up from there, I guess!  At least that way at the end we won’t have a kid who’s been sitting still and a mama who is exhausted.

Our wildlife observations today included many, many seagulls, at least two dozen dogs, several other kinds of sea birds, and the surfers.  We also got in some top-quality people-watching.  Races are always great for people-watching.  I think the highlights for her were the two Amtrak trains and the highway patrolman who waved at her – not things we get to see on our usual route!  Oh, and of course a finisher’s medal to add to her growing collection.  That’s how I bribe her to behave herself in the stroller throughout the longer races – snacks, coloring books, leaves, rocks, flowers, and the shiny finisher’s medal at the end are a surefire way to get us through even a half marathon.

Short post today because I’m exhausted and the laundry is calling.

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Irene Curie-Joliot

photo from nuclearfiles.org bio

Just about everyone has heard of Marie Curie and her contributions to science.  But not so many have heard of her daughter.  Irene Curie-Joliot was a tremendously successful scientist in her own right.

Born in Paris in 1897, Irene Curie was the daughter of already-famous Marie and Pierre Curie.  Irene served as a nurse radiographer alongside her mother in WWI before finishing her doctorate in 1925 and marrying chemical engineer Frederic Joliot in 1926.  The two of them collaborated in life and science until her death in 1956, sometimes working on separate projects, sometimes working together.

In 1935 Irene Curie-Joliot and Frederic Joliot won the nobel prize in chemistry for their work on synthesizing new radioactive elements.  This was monumental in that they had managed to turn an element into something else, a feat out of the old myths of alchemy.  They achieved it by bombarding naturally occurring elements with alpha particles, making it possible to achieve radioactive isotopes from lighter elements.  This discovery was especially critical to nuclear medicine research.

Irene worked in research, as a lecturer, in politics, and as a mother.  She started lecturing in 1932 and became a full Professor in the Faculty of Science in Paris in 1937.  She and frederic had a daughter, Helene, and a son, Pierre, both highly regarded scientists in their own rights –  Helene in nuclear physics, and Pierre in biochemistry.

Irene Curie-Joliot also worked to advance nuclear power in France, serving as a Commissioner for Atomic energy.  Her efforts in this area led to the development of France’s first atomic pile and the many efficient plants that would follow.  Fearing the weaponization of their work on nuclear fission and development of nuclear reactors, she and Frederic sealed their notes on that subject in the vaults of the French Academy of Sciences until 1949.

In addition to all those efforts, she was the Director of the Radium Institute, which was started by her parents, and she worked on improving education infrastructure in her field and served as France’s Undersecretary of State for Scientific Research starting in 1936.  She was also a champion for women, both socially and academically.  She served on the World Peace Council and Comité National de l’Union des Femmes Françaises.  The Jolie-Curies involvement with socialism and communism in the French resistance during WWII did cause them later troubles during the cold war.  This could partially explain why they are so much less well-known than Irene’s parents.

While the Nobel Prize is arguably her biggest achievement, she received numerous awards, honorary degrees, and prestigious memberships to foreign academies and scientific societies, even serving as an Officer of the Legion of Honor.

After contracting tuberculosis during WWII and frequently convalescing in Switzerland, Irene succumbed to leukemia in 1956.  If you would like to know more and can manage to find it anywhere (let me know if you do –  none of the links I found worked!), PBS put out a film in their Women of Science series called Out from the Shadows: The Story of Irene Joliot-Curie and Frederic Joliot-Curie

Sources:

http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1935/joliot-curie-bio.html

http://www.famousscientists.org/irene-joliot-curie/

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1353203/Frederic-and-Irene-Joliot-Curie

https://www.aip.org/history/curie/2ndgen1.htm

http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/library/biographies/bio_curie-irene.htm

http://www.nndb.com/people/410/000100110/

http://www.wgbhinternational.org/index.php?sid=yvktsfgceb5msb4ykwjngev1rqpmlnwa&lang=english&page=search&query=irene+curie&advanced=on&title=on&description=on&producer=on&dle_pp=0&dle_od=asc&pr_act=details&pid=542

http://www.wgbh.org/programs/Out-From-the-Shadows-The-Story-of-Irene-and-Frederic-Joliot-Curie-330

http://www.mphpa.org/classic/HF/Biographies%20-%20Women/i_curie.htm

http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/online-resources/chemistry-in-history/themes/atomic-and-nuclear-structure/joliot-curie-joliot.aspx

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Pregnancy Small Talk for the Socially Impaired Geek Parent

A sidebar discussion from yesterday’s post ended up being about small talk and babies on the way.  One friend pointed out that the “boy or girl” question is, for many, the only safe thing we can think of to ask a pregnant or expecting person.  For those of us who aren’t very good at small talk to begin with, what are some topics we can safely bring up when talking to other parents and parents-to-be other than gender?

There is always advice available for what not to say to a pregnant person.  Obviously “Wow, you’re huge!” or, “I sure hope it doesn’t look like you!” or, “Gee, was it an accident?” aren’t remotely acceptable things to say.

But even seemingly innocent questions have a way of coming out wrong and getting us into trouble.  “When are you due?” can even be dangerous, since some women simply carry their weight in such a way that they look pregnant all the time – it is never safe to assume someone is pregnant unless she actually tells you she is, and it’s not really acceptable to ask.  There are also those of us who continue to look pregnant for several months after having the baby.  And “Are you excited?” can be construed as an underhanded way of asking “Did you actually want to get pregnant?” even if you don’t mean it like that.

But, given that you have absolutely solid evidence that someone is pregnant, what are some nice, non-gender related things to talk about?  Since I am one of those parents woefully untalented at small talk, this list will be on the short side.  Please help me come up with more!

The ones I know of are pretty generic, such as:

  • How exciting!
  • Congrats!
  • How are you feeling?
  • When are you due? (Really, seriously, only if you KNOW the person is pregnant!)

If the expectant parent is someone you know well enough to ask some slightly more personal questions or offer help to, you could try these:

  • What are your family’s plans for after the baby is born? (safe way to ask without making any stereotyped assumptions about childcare choices)
  • Is there anything you need to help you get ready?
  • Do you need someone on hot standby for pet-sitting (or watching the other kids) when the time comes?
  • Would you rather be left alone at first when the baby comes, or have someone come over right away for company/bringing food/assisting around the house/huffing that amazing baby smell?

Or introduce a little humor into the small-talk:

  • Have you memorized the wallpaper at your OB’s office yet?
  • So, what’s the most obnoxious unsolicited advice someone has given you so far?
  • Has a crazy stranger with no sense of personal space tried to touch you yet?

And, of course, if your friend is a fellow geek, you could try:

  • I’ll bet the force will be strong with this baby, with you as a parent
  • What age do you think is good for introducing a kid to Dr. Who?
  • If you could have any member of the Serenity crew as a godparent, who would you pick?
  • Too bad the Enterprise isn’t real, or you could take the kid to space with you!

Alright, that’s even shorter and less helpful than I feared it would be.  More socially adept people, help me out here and add more in the comments!

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What do Gender Reveal Parties Reveal About Us?

Ok, today I’m dipping my toe into the waters of blog posts that will probably get me hate mail.  The first big opinion piece that is likely to spark  a *ahem* lively conversation.

So… gender reveal parties.  The reveal takes many forms – cakes with blue or pink filling, blue and pink drinks, Oreos with blue or pink filling, secret envelopes with ultrasound pictures, and even moustaches vs. hair bows (this one especially gets rankles – a ‘manly’ object vs. a ‘little girl’ object is such an awful contrast).

There are usually games, secret ballots, extraordinarily creative ways to break the news, and people choose sides for “team pink” or “team blue.”  Gender reveal parties are all the rage for the pregnant/expecting crowd these days.  There are articles, pinterest sites, parenting blogs, entire websites even dedicated to these parties.

But why?  It seems that for a lot of people the gender of a baby has somehow become the single most important thing about bringing a new life into the world.  The first question someone asks expectant parents is almost always, “do you want a boy or a girl?” or, if late enough in the pregnancy to know, “is it a boy or a girl?”

Does it matter?  Shouldn’t the focus be on the fact that it’s a brand new human life you’re growing in there?  What does it say about us that the focus – earlier and earlier, now – is on pink vs. blue, boy vs. girl, dividing our kids into boxes and sets of strict expectations before they are even born.  Are we planning in advance to value one over the other, whether we do so consciously or not?

Why is gender the most important thing to know about a new baby?  Wouldn’t you rather talk about hopes and dreams for your child, or your plans for childcare and feeding, or your favorite parenting books and the best advice you have gotten?  Why is gender the single biggest focus?  It’s not like science has gotten us to the point where we get to choose in advance just yet.  And if you’re going to the trouble of having a gender reveal party, it’s fairly safe to assume you really want the baby.  Will you love the child less if the gender turns out to not be your first choice?  I know this is a reality in many parts of the world, but I have high hopes that eventually it won’t be that way, especially not in the U.S.

So help me out with some fun and more productive alternatives here – instead of a gender reveal party, how about a “guess the personality type” party or a “predict the future occupation” party – or something else that’s equally out of our control but perhaps a little less divisive.  Or you could even make it something constructive and have a “bring the book that influenced your childhood the most” party.

Please share in the comments – what are your thoughts on pink vs. blue and gender reveals?  Have you had one of these parties, hosted one, or attended one?  What is the upside?  Did you have a gender preference when you were expecting your child?

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: COL Eileen Collins, NASA’s First Female Space Shuttle Commander

COL Eileen Collins is a retired Air Force Test Pilot and was the first woman to pilot the space shuttle, as well as the first woman to command a space shuttle.  When she first entered the Air Force, women were not allowed to fly combat aircraft, a ban that stood until 1993.  But that did not stop Eileen Collins from flying every aircraft she was allowed to and blazing a trail for female pilots in the Air Force and at NASA.

She has logged over 6751 flight hours.  She is highly educated, holding a B.A. in mathematics & economics, an M.S. in operations research, and an M.A. in space systems management, as well as honorary degrees.  She has been a pilot, a mathematics instructor, and flight instructor, and went through the prestigious Air Force Test Pilot School.  Married to a fellow pilot, she is also a mother of two.  Her awards would take several paragraphs to list.

COL Collins was selected for astronaut training in 1990 and in her sixteen years at NASA she worked a variety of jobs and flew four STS missions, for a total of 872 hours in space.  She made two trips to the Mir space station, twice executing one of the most difficult space piloting tasks there is: docking with a space station.  She also had one of the toughest missions imaginable on her final flight, STS-114, when she commanded the first mission back to space following the Columbia tragedy.

I like her perspective on genders on the job, which reflects my own similar experience in the military:

“Within the job itself, the male-female commander, the male-female astronaut, it’s really the same,” Collins said. “What really matters is how the person does their job.”

And I especially love her life advice for young people aspiring to a similar career:

“My advice to young people is this. Focus on three major areas: academics, activities, and your physical health. I encourage you, especially when you get into high school and you can choose some of the courses you take, to take the tough courses. Don’t just avoid a course because you think you might not get an “A.” Take the tough courses like math, science, and engineering. Learn a variety of things while you have the opportunity.”

COL Collins is an inspiring female role model in not just STEM fields, but also for kids who want to be pilots, astronauts, serve in the military, or really to excel in any chosen field.  

Sources:

http://www.astronautix.com/astros/colileen.htm

http://www.nasa.gov/vision/space/preparingtravel/eileen_collins_profile.html

http://www.space.com/2360-nasa-female-shuttle-commander-retires-spaceflight.html

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/collins.html

https://www.greatwomen.org/women-of-the-hall/search-the-hall/details/2/40-Collins

http://womenshistory.about.com/od/collinseileen/

http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/space/nasa/astronaut-eileen-collins-on-what-it-was-like-to-fly-the-space-shuttle

http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/npr/rego/interviews/collins.htm

http://www.windows2universe.org/people/astronauts/collins-e.html

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